A landmark publication in Cho Nam-joo’s native South Korea – where its 2016 release kick-started the country’s #MeToo movement – Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 showcases the prevailing misogyny and paternalism of South Korean society. Focusing on the daily injustices and lifelong sacrifices the eponymous protagonist is expected to accept without question, Nam-joo sets in motion a chain of events that blows apart concepts of tradition and female subservience in her home country.
In a small, neat apartment on the outskirts of the frenzied metropolis of Seoul, Kim Jiyoung – a millennial ‘everywoman’ – spends her days caring for her young daughter and her holidays preparing vast feasts for her in-laws. Her husband, however, worries over a strange symptom of psychosis that has recently appeared: Jiyoung has begun to impersonate the voices of other women – dead and alive, both known and unknown to her.
As she plunges deeper into depression, Jiyoung's concerned husband sends her to a psychiatrist, who listens to her narrate her own life story: from her birth to a family who expected a son, to elementary school teachers who policed girls' outfits, to male colleagues who installed hidden cameras in women's toilets and posted the photos online. As her doctor grapples with what could be the underlying causes of her illness, we’re offered a plethora of plausible options, one after another, in a startling read that captures the bind of career versus childcare better than almost anything else we’ve encountered.
Nam-joo is a former television scriptwriter who drew on her own experience as a woman who quit her job to stay at home after giving birth to write her third novel. ‘Kim Jiyoung’ is the South Korean equivalent of ‘Jane Doe’ – a faceless anomaly who could be any one of us. She’s a girl born to a mother whose in-laws wanted a boy; a sister made to share a room while her brother gets one of his own; a daughter whose father blames her when she is harassed late at night; a model employee who gets overlooked for promotion; a wife who gives up her career and independence for a life of domesticity. At times, we’re also given a glimpse into Jiyoung’s mother’s own battles with motherhood and her sense of self, as well as anecdotal evidence of misogyny via Jiyoung’s older sister, female boss and lower-paid colleagues. Each is an alarming account.
It’s no surprise this novel had a profound impact on gender inequality and discrimination in Korea, going as far as inspiring protests on the street. In a similar vein to this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner Parasite, it shines a light on inequality and family struggles in South Korea and – at a taut 169-pages long – it also gets straight to the point and makes for a punchy read. Thought provoking, eye opening and frequently anger inducing, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is essential reading.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo is out now